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How Video Meetings Mess with Your Head and How to Make it Better

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I could tell by the glowing yellow line that framed Amy’s video image that she was saying something. But for the life of me, I couldn’t absorb the meaning of her words, even though I could hear her just fine. Maybe it was the fact that this was the third Zoom workshop that I facilitated that day, or that I hadn’t given my brain or body a chance to recharge for the last several hours. Whatever the reason, at that moment, my brain felt absolutely fried. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself together for the waning minutes of the session, but I resolved never to let that happen to me again, whatever the heck that was.

Just because I have heard many people complain of “Zoom fatigue,” it didn’t mean I had the solution. Since I typically lead multiple virtual workshops each day, I had a vested interest in figuring out how endless video meetings are affecting our brains and what we can do about it. Here’s what I have discovered about how and why meeting by video can jam up our brains, along with some tips to avoid or mitigate the negative side effects.

Why, exactly, are video meetings so taxing?

  • We’re expecting too much. Virtual experiences can never measure up to face-to-face interactions, especially when it comes to building relationships, making intuitive connections, understanding others’ perspectives, and deciphering emotions. And yet we somehow expect that with an icebreaker or two, a few great questions to stimulate conversation, and a host of activities to keep people engaged, that we can come close to simulating in-person conversations. The more we try to convince ourselves, the more disappointed we become that the session felt tiring and well, flat.
  • We are forced to focus hyper-attentively on expressions, gestures, nuances and gestures, scanning all visible faces, at the same time, listening for words, tone, cadence and silence. (And if we’re leading the session, we’re also concerned about the technology working, session content, timing, dysfunctional behavior, and myriad other factors that need to go right.) This is just plain exhausting. Contrast this to if we were sitting around a table, where we’d be looking at one or two people at a time, instead of scanning every face, every moment. There are no natural breaks in video meetings. Gazing out the window to think, as we might otherwise do, may be misinterpreted as disinterest. Taking an impromptu stretch break might be considered rude. And so we sit, dutifully glued to our video cameras.
  • Our brains are constantly straining to fill in the gaps left by the two-dimensional aspect of video. According to Kate Murphy in her New York Times piece, Why Zoom is Terrible, since video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the resulting disorder, which makes us vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite realizing why. Murphy quotes Sheryl Brahnam, an IT and cybersecurity professor at Missouri State University, who compares videoconferencing to consuming highly processed foods: “In-person communication resembles video conferencing about as much as a real blueberry muffin resembles a packaged blueberry muffin that contains not a single blueberry but artificial flavors, textures and preservatives. You eat too many, and you’re not going to feel very good.”
  • It’s harder to empathize. Our pixelated images are nothing like the faces we see in person, where we can instantly interpret subtle movements around the eyes and mouth, even when we’re not consciously aware we’re doing so. Those micro-cues all but disappear in the pixelated versions of ourselves, making it almost impossible for us to mirror others through facial mimicry, which, says Murphy, is essential to empathy and connection. “To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it. When we can’t do it seamlessly, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and thus, predict what they will do.” Simply put: When our predictions are not confirmed, our brains have to work harder, making us feel exhausted.
  • We can’t see eye to eye. We can make the others feel like we’re looking into their eyes by staring into our own video cameras. But when we gaze into our camera, we can’t also be looking at others’ facial expressions, let alone gazing into their eyes. We can’t have it both ways. In the absence of direct eye contact, building trust becomes a lot harder.
  • Too much information about ourselves, and not enough about others. Thanks to our ability to see our own images front and center, we tend to over-emote to make sure our reactions are noticed by everyone else, including showing affirmations, expressions of surprise or curiosity, disagreement, or demonstrating interest (whether it’s feigned or not). Says Christina Cauterucci in her Slate piece, I Will Not Be Attending Your Exhausting Zoom Gathering, “Social instincts that usually require little conscious effort are now taking up space in my brain, draining the energy I used to devote to the substance of a conversation.” (No wonder I had difficulty deciphering the meaning of my workshop participant’s words: My brain was already fully loaded trying to process all of nonverbal information I was struggling to take in.)
  • Natural conversation rhythms are hard to come by. There are fewer natural pauses in video meetings, making it hard to discern when it’s okay to talk. Since we can’t easily tell if someone is about to speak, several may try to speak at once. Or even worse, sometimes no one talks at all. And when you’re trying to scan 5, 10 or 25 faces at once, it’s hard to know what’s holding people back from jumping in. As Julia Sklar explained in her National Geographic piece on Zoom fatigue, a typical video calls impairs our ability to pick up clues about someone’s direction or intensity of focus, or their intention to speak. A video call requires sustained and intense attention to words, she points out, causing our brains to become hyper-focused on searching for nonverbal cues that it cannot find.

Tips for combatting “Zoom fatigue”

  • Just say no to video, at least occasionally. Apart from the fact you may have your kids running around your workspace, a counter full of dirty dishes behind you, or a sudden reminder that you’ve ignored hair over the last few days, it’s okay to decline the request to turn on your camera on occasion “just because.” Better yet, suggest that everyone attend in voice-only mode from time to time, or simply make it a con call instead. Research shows that many people tend to listen more deeply and derive more meaning from what they hear, without the distraction of trying to read facial expressions from tiny video images on the screen. (Even if you feel pressured to turn on your video, it doesn’t mean you have to look at yourself. By hiding your image from your own view, you eliminate much of the distracting noise that occupies way too much space in your brain. I do this often, once I get my angle and lighting right. It’s made a huge difference in my ability to concentrate and brain energy.)
  • Move more conversations offline. These may take the form of asynchronous (any time) conversations in a shared workspace or portal (think Slack), when people can join at any time to exchange ideas, respond to questions, post answers, or brainstorm ideas. They might also take the form of 1:1 phone conversations, IM chats or email threads. The point is, not every conversation has to begin and end on Zoom.
  • Take breaks. If the meeting leader hasn’t built in break time, request a break when your energy is flagging. Chances are, others feel the same way. If you feel awkward about interrupting to ask for a break, let people know in chat (or some other way) that you are walking away for two minutes and will be right back. If you must stay put, find something to focus on that can help settle your mind, like an open window, a photo or painting, or a doodle. You don’t have to keep staring at the screen intently for 60 or more minutes at a time. You brain will thank you.
  • Make use of breakouts. Not all meetings will benefit by having small-group breakout activities, but if you’re having at least 10 people sitting around the virtual table, consider how the formation of small groups can help achieve the intended results, perhaps even in less time. When we’re seeing and hearing just a few other people at a time, we can focus much more easily without the distraction of so many other faces. Plus, conversations are almost always more satisfying and meaningful with just a few people. Caveat: Make sure you have allocated sufficient time for instructions, the breakout activity, and a group debrief, if one is needed. Breakouts take time, and almost all need some kind of debrief. Don’t cut them short.
  • Be super clear in setting expectations and giving instructions. Since it’s a fair guess that many on the call will be at least somewhat disengaged or tired at any given time, it’s especially important to make sure that everyone understands the questions, instructions, or other requests. Use multiple communication channels to do this. E.g., review instructions verbally, and also on a slide in the shared screen, as well as in the chat area. Invite people to ask questions for clarification after you review the instructions. If you are able to scan facial expressions, look for signs of hesitancy or confusion. Pause long enough for people to ask questions. Resist the temptation to move them along too quickly in hopes that everyone magically understood everything right up front.
  • Take a pulse. This can take the form of a quick poll (launching one from your meeting application, or using another app like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter). Or you can do a quick verbal go-round the room, or ask people to type in, say, a number from 1-10, where 1 signals very low energy and 10 signals very high energy. You can try scanning faces, but as we’ve pointed out, we derive precious little emotional content from pixelated images. Regardless of your method of assessing the level of energy in the room, try asking people to turn off their videos before weighing in. Many experts say that no facial cues are better than faulty ones.
  • Make virtual social events optional. Many of my clients are holding virtual happy hours for people to connect socially, something that’s sorely lacking these days. Typically, these social sessions are held around 4-5 PM on Fridays. Some rotate hosts. Some have themes, like “Movie Night,” where people share favorite films. Some play games; for example, my brilliant friend and neighbor just developed an app for our poker club to play Texas Hold-‘Em via Zoom. And some people just want to talk, about anything and everything.

Video meetings don’t have to be so tiring, and you probably don’t need as many as you think you do.  Know the limitations and constraints, both of the technology itself, and of peoples’ ability to stay focused. Be thoughtful about when video is really required by all, or even by some. And while you’re at it, think about whether real-time meetings of any kind are really needed, or whether you can have conversations some other way. As Christina Cauterucci reminds us in her Slate piece, “These days, when video chatting has to stand in for a whole social life’s worth of in-person contact, it feels like a massive downgrade. Every Zoom call brings a painful reminder of what quarantined life is missing.”

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